By DAN GELSTON
The Associated Press
Put them in, coach. The boys and girls of summer are ready to play.
But Little League, like most of the sports world, has been benched. Youth baseball fields sit empty, and parents mourn the loss of spring ball, yearning for the days when the best way to flatten the curve was with a line drive up the middle.
The youth baseball program that boasts more than 2.5 million kids spread over 6,500 programs in 84 countries is on hold at least until May 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even that target date seems optimistic, and the fate of its signature event, the Little League World Series in August in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania is unclear.
“If we were going to play the world series, traditionally like we have done for many, many years, we need to be playing and picking teams by the middle of June,” said Little League President Stephen Keener, who has yet to set a drop-dead date for a tournament decision.
Keener has been the Little League CEO since 1996 and spent almost 40 years in the organization, but trying to figure out the dynamics of a rescheduled tournament is more complex than the infield fly rule.
At best, Little League would have to loosen some of its rules on qualifying — such as minimum number of games — for teams to participate. Postponement to even a fall date is a thorny issue because anything beyond August would disrupt the school year.
“If we were to do it in the fall, pretty much every team that would be here would have to be uprooted from school,” Keener said. “I’m not so sure that it would be in the best interest of a child’s education, after having missed probably a couple of months school already, to take them out of school in the fall to come play in a baseball tournament. That, to me, would be quite unimportant.”
And there’s this: It is a World Series, emphasis on world. The 2019 international bracket features teams from Curaçao, Japan, Mexico, Australia and Italy. There are travel restrictions guidelines because of the global pandemic that could make it impossible for some teams to participate.
“Ultimately, we’ll have to go country by country,” Keener said.
The Associated Press is looking at the impact of the cancellation or postponement of some of the iconic sporting events due to the coronavirus pandemic is having on cities and communities. If the LLWS is canceled, the hardest hit town would surely be Williamsport, a city of about 29,000 that is the heartbeat of Lycoming County, and synonymous with Little League since 1947.
“This is who we are. This is what we’re known for,” said Jason Fink, the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce president. “It’s more than just baseball.”
The World Series is scheduled to run Aug. 20 to Aug. 30, and any kind of cancellation would crush the hospitality industry.
Hotels would not have the packed floors of families, fans and ballplayers that send business booming for two weeks every August. Nilesh Patel, the general manager of the Red Roof Inn across the street from the complex, said 30 to 40 percent of its business is generated during the World Series.
“It’s a hot time for all business people, not only us,” Patel said.
Patel said the motel’s 100 rooms are sold out for two weeks — going for $199 to $259 per night — and families from South Korean and Chinese teams usually book rooms at checkout for the next year.
Now, Patel lamented, “people are afraid of traveling,” leaving the vacancy light on these days, though no one has canceled yet for August because the series is still on the calendar.
The Major League Baseball Little League Classic was added in 2016 and the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles are still set to play Aug. 23 at Bowman Field, the home of the Phillies’ Class-A team.
Fink said the economic impact of the LLWS on the region is “well over $30 million” and there is no event that could raise even a fraction of the potential lost revenue.
There’s also the exposure that comes with a television contract with ABC/ESPN that earns the organization more than $9 million per year through 2022. The 2019 championship game got 3.02 million viewers on ABC.
But if the event is canceled this year, Fink said the city will bounce back.
“If for some reason we do not have it this year, next year it will be bigger, it will be better,” he said.
The Little League World Series turns 75 next year, and the quaint traditions of the event such as pin trading are cardboard box sled rides down the hill behind Howard J. Lamade Stadium are sure to return once its safe.
Without a tournament, there would be no feel-good stories like the one Alex Rice enjoyed.
He was the coach of the Taney Dragons and then 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, the 2014 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year who became an instant celebrity and the first girl to win a Little League World Series game.
“The first night game, with I think 35,000 people, and about 95% Philadelphia folks, that was really terrific,” Rice said. “… But kind of like we are now, we were sequestered in our little dorms. The kids were are on social media and everything but you really have a good sense of what was going on with how excited the city was getting.”
Amid the hoopla, Rice didn’t feel the Dragons got a chance to really live the full World Series experience so he took the majority of the team back in 2015 as regular kids.
“We did the pin trading. We did the cardboard down the hill,” Rice said. “We kind of relaxed on the hill and enjoyed it.”
Once it’s safe for play to resume, so should the memorable times at Williamsport.